by Ben Muth
I was planning on writing about the San Francisco 49ers this week because I haven't covered them yet this year, but then Kerryon Johnson ran for 101 yards on Sunday night against the Patriots in a nationally televised game and I decided to change course. There aren't a lot of rules to Word of Muth, but one of them is that if you have your first 100-yard rusher since 2013 (and you're one of the teams I'm covering) I'm going to write about it. So here we are.
What's amazing is that Johnson went over the century mark with a long of 15 and just 16 carries. That means he was consistently chewing up yards and making positive runs. It was a steady march toward Detroit history. For Lions fans who haven't been here in a while, we're going to review how you get to 100 yards.
First things first, you've got to kick a little ass up front. The first time I wrote about the Lions, rookie left guard Frank Ragnow (77) looked terrible, and frankly like he didn't belong on an NFL field yet. What a difference two weeks makes. He played much better against New England and played very well overall, highlighted by this play. Look at how he shoots his arms on that linebacker (Elandon Roberts, 52). He's throwing two uppercuts to his breastplate and raising him up like a forklift. That's textbook stuff. He's in complete control and the linebacker cannot escape. At that point he just has to run his feet and finish the block by knocking the defender on his back.
At center, Graham Glasgow (60) was another guy who struggled in the opener but looked much better here in Week 3. Glasgow does a great job hooking the nose tackle (Adam Butler, 70) and hooking him quickly to make the running back's read very easy. He takes a great first step, but what I really like is how wide he's able to keep his base as he works his hips around into the hole. Too many times you see guys narrow up if they're trying to reach someone, Glasgow feels his man slip and just kind of shuffles around him. Very effective.
What's even more effective than kicking ass up front is scheming it so you don't have to. Right guard T.J. Lang (76) probably makes the best block of the play here, and even his block wouldn't rate higher than "pretty good." But because the way the Patriots are lined up, the Lions don't have to move anyone; they just have to get in the way.
Because of their formation, Detroit is able to stretch the Patriots front out too wide. The Patriots have two wide 3-techniques here and have left a ton of space in the middle of the formation. It looks like Dont'a Hightower (54) or Malcolm Brown (90) has screwed up his run fit (someone has to play that A-gap), but even if they played it correctly the Lions have good angles to block them on this play. But with the Patriots run fits screwed up and the huge canyon in the middle, all Glasgow has to do is cover up the middle linebacker (Roberts again). He catches him more than you want, but he does completely cover him up, giving Johnson a two-way go and an easy 9 yards. Matthew Stafford might have checked to that play, but the ghost motion by the wide receiver makes me think it was a huddle call.
A great game plan is one thing, but you still have to execute it. This is an outside zone scheme with a pin-and-pull adjustment from left guard and center. Some true zone disciples hate this type of thing because they think it bastardizes the scheme. They feel it turns it into some unholy hodgepodge of outside zone and the wing T, but it can really work. If the center thinks the nose tackle is too wide, or that he might slant into the play, he can make a call that tells the guard to downblock leaving him to pull to chase the linebacker.
I'm guessing Glasgow thought there might be pressure coming off the backside (standup linebacker and a defensive back close enough to come off that edge) which would mean that the nose could slant. Rather than try to hook a defensive tackle who is moving away from you, which is really tough and will probably force the running back to cut back into the stunt, you call your guard down to seal the defensive tackle inside and cut the defense in two. The great part about this look is that even if you're wrong (which is the case here) it's still a fine way to block this front. Really the only way it would hurt you to run it like this versus this front is if the defense is running a game to the play side where the defensive end and linebacker exchange gaps.
I also want to point out Lang, who again does a tremendous job here on the second level. He takes a great angle at a linebacker who is quickly flowing against this stretch and is able to cut him off and cover him up. That's a pretty tough block that Lang makes looks easy.
Before we go I do want to at least mention the passing game, or at least the play-action game. Now, I write for Football Outsiders so I know that running the ball effectively isn't statistically proven to help the play-action game. And I believe that. But I also believe that running the ball effectively makes it easier to pass block.
Here's a big play-action touchdown from the third quarter. Rick Wagner at right tackle (71) is the only guy up front who has a hard job here, and he does it wonderfully. This is a great example of using what you know about a play, and what the defender doesn't, to make your job easier. Wagner knows where Stafford is going to throw the ball from (the launch point) so he knows what area to protect before the quarterback even gets there.
Rather than overcommit to the inside to sell the run, Wagner does a good job of shuffling down and keeping his shoulders square waiting for a counter. He doesn't turn his shoulders to oversell the run (there's like seven other guys on this play who can sell the run hard). Wagner has to make sure the defensive end doesn't beat him. Wagner has perfect body position when the defensive end realizes that it's a half-boot and tries to get back outside. It's a nice job of using your knowledge to make your job easy.